Let’s get personal – the future of the virtual assistant

The Spark

8th June 2017

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The race to be the leading voice assistant in the home has heated up this week, with Apple revealing its new HomePod: a Siri-powered AI speaker following in the footsteps of Amazon’s Echo and Google’s Home. Of course, Amazon has a huge head start with a 70 per cent market share of the 35 million or so devices on the market. Google’s Home has so far failed to inspire, although TechCrunch has some advice for the tech giant on that front. In spite of the Apple HomePod hype, investors are already looking beyond the (at times frustratingly) basic functionality of the current crop of home assistants; the future is robotic home assistants that sound more human.

Today’s voice assistants lack the ability to understand context, making communicating with them clunky. Hound, developed by SoundHound, wants to change all that. It’s creating a stir in a way that Echo, Siri, Home and Cortana have so far failed to. CEO Keyvan Mohajer recently demonstrated an iteration of the software by asking for a mortgage calculation. The app responded requesting the interest rate and term of the loan before voicing the answer. When this sort of functionality is achieved, people will likely demand their voice assistants to have personality and charm.

As innovators compete to plant their voice-driven artificially intelligent flags in the home, more will strive for the human touch to make interacting with algorithms feel more natural. A natural back-and-forth dialogue with our technology will enable a deeper and more valuable connection. A conversational user interface that is personable whilst learning our habits, likes and daily schedule – and can apply this contextual information usefully – will become the norm.

This type of assistant sounds eerily like the Scarlett Johansson-voiced AI assistant in Her. Liesl Yearsley warns of the risk of exploiting people’s tendency to become emotionally attached to chatbots. But which of us can resist the allure of an omnipotent digital presence that knows what we want, when we want it and gets on with sorting it out? A trusted, algorithmic personal assistant who re-stocks the fridge, moves that dinner reservation due to traffic or gets dad’s favourite tipple in for Father’s Day with efficacy, charm and a human-like touch sounds good to me.


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